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Describing language
Describing language

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3.1 Pronouns

You’ve also met the pronouns before (specifically what we call the personal pronouns). Their main function is to help us talk and write about nouns without having to repeat them all the time. It would sound and look quite odd to keep repeating the nouns in a sentence, see a), so we use pronouns in their place instead, as in b).

  • a.Eleanor loved Eleanor’s new coat. Eleanor thought Eleanor looked very fashionable in Eleanor’s new coat.
  • b.Eleanor loved her new coat. She thought she looked very fashionable in it.

In English, pronouns can be used in different ways:

  • To talk about ourselves: I and me
  • To talk directly with another person or group: we, us, you
  • To talk directly about another person or group: he, she, him, her, they, them
  • To talk about non-human nouns: it, one, ones, them

Pronouns can be singular (I/me, you, he/him, she/her, it, one) or plural (we/us, you, they/them, ones).

Box 1

We have said that closed word classes tend not to change. But that doesn’t mean they never can. Notice that English does not distinguish between addressing one person (you) and more than one person (also you). English used to have a singular form (thou) but this is now only found in older, or old-fashioned texts. This is one example of a change in a closed word class, but it doesn’t happen very often. One important change taking place right now is that they is being used more and more to talk about just one person, to avoid the awkward he or she or he/she.

Activity 5 Find the pronouns

Timing: This activity should take around 15 minutes

Read through this passage and highlight any pronouns you find:

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There were 22 pronouns in the text. Well done if you managed to find them all. Notice there are only 7 different pronouns (I, it, she, me, we, her and us), but most of them used several times. Such a lot of pronouns in such a short text gives some idea of how important these small words are in helping us talk about nouns without constantly repeating them.

If there were any you missed, take a closer look at the text again. As you read, look for words that seem to be standing in for a person.

You might have highlighted my in the extract above, but this word acts more like an adjective than a pronoun as it doesn’t take the place of a noun. In fact, because it’s part of a small set of very specific words that denote possession, you’ll classify my as part of the next closed class you’re going to look at: determiners.